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Articles April 2011 Issue

Mediterranean-Style Diet Linked to Slower Mental Decline

Here’s more evidence that eating like a Mediterranean might help protect your aging brain: In a new study comparing the eating habits and mental abilities of nearly 3,800 older Chicagoans, those who stuck most closely to a Mediterranean-style diet pattern saw a slower rate of cognitive decline with aging. People who ate most like Mediterraneans had brains that functioned as if they were several years younger.

Following up on other studies linking the so-called Mediterranean diet to slower cognitive decline, Christine Tangney, PhD, of Rush University Medical Center, and colleagues looked at data from the Chicago Health and Aging Project (CHAP). The analysis included 3,790 adult residents of the South Side of Chicago, all age 65 or older, who were followed for an average of 7.6 years.

Using responses to a questionnaire about 139 different foods, participants’ diets were scored for adherence to a traditional Mediterranean diet, which includes daily consumption of such foods as fruit, vegetables, legumes, olive oil, fish and whole grains, as well as wine. The average score was 28 out of a maximum of 55 points. Diets were also scored on a 100-point scale for how closely they matched the Healthy Eating Index-2005, based on the 2005 federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Cognitive performance was tested every three years using measures such as recollection of words and basic arithmetic abilities.

Even after adjusting for other lifestyle factors, those with higher “MedDiet” scores had slower cognitive decline over time: A person with a 10-point higher score than someone the same age would, on average, perform mentally as if three years younger. No similar association with slower cognitive decline was seen for adherence to the Healthy Eating Index-2005, which researchers noted gives less weight to fish, olive oil and legumes and does not ascribe any benefit to moderate alcohol intake.

Tangney said that the results add to other studies showing that a Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of heart disease, certain cancers and diabetes. The findings also align with similar results from research linking Mediterranean-style dietary patterns with lower risks of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease—despite using different systems for scoring adherence to such a diet.

She added, “The more we can incorporate vegetables, olive oil and fish into our diets and moderate wine consumption, the better for our aging brains and bodies.”

TO LEARN MORE: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, online before print; abstract at www.ajcn.org/content/early/2010/12/22/ajcn.110.007369.abstract.

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